June 3, 2016

House passes Tanzi biliteracy seal legislation

STATE HOUSE – The House of Representatives voted today to approve legislation sponsored by Rep. Teresa Tanzi to create a “biliteracy seal” that school districts could affix to the diplomas and transcripts of high school graduates who demonstrate proficiency in another language in addition to English.

The legislation is meant to recognize students who have achieved high levels of proficiency in multiple languages, encourage more to do so and help employers identify job applicants who have the sought-after skill of communicating in multiple languages.

“Knowing more than one language is a skill that is growing more useful every day as our society increasingly becomes more global. Employers in the 21st century need employees who can communicate with their customers and contacts in languages besides English, so we should be encouraging students to pursue proficiency in multiple languages. A biliteracy seal is both a distinction for the student who achieves that goal, and a way to assist employers in finding employees in Rhode Island who can offer them the sought-after skill of multilingualism,” said Representative Tanzi (D-Dist. 34, South Kingstown, Narragansett).


The legislation (2016-H 8178) would allow school districts to place a seal on the diplomas and transcripts of graduates have demonstrated a high level of proficiency in another language in addition to English. The Council on Elementary and Secondary Education would create standards by which that high level of proficiency would be measured, such as the completion of units in English and another language and/or scores on assessments in English and other languages. All modern and native languages, Latin and American Sign Language would be considered qualified foreign languages under the bill. School districts’ participation would be voluntary, and no charge to the student would be allowed.

The seal would emphasize the increasing importance of learning other languages to students whose native language is English. It would also serve as an incentive for students whose first language was one other than English not merely to maintain their first language as they learn English, but to ensure they perfect their command of it in spoken and written form so that they qualify as “highly proficient.”

Representative Tanzi, whose own South Kingstown school district offers a bilingual immersion education beginning in kindergarten at two elementary schools, said schools in Rhode Island and across America should encourage students to take their foreign language requirements seriously and make more of an effort to become truly fluent in at least one foreign language.

“Knowing another language well is a tremendous advantage in many situations, improves a job applicant’s chances of getting hired, and can open doors for people in many ways. And the younger a person begins learning another language, the better, since the brain is wired to absorb language most quickly during childhood. Anything we can do to encourage students to be fluent in other languages in addition to English is beneficial,” she said.

The bill is supported by the Department of Education. Eighteen other states and the District of Columbia have already passed similar legislation, and other states have pending legislation, including Massachusetts and Connecticut. There is currently a Seal of Biliteracy Working Group working with Central Falls to pilot the awarding of a district-level seal to qualified candidates in the 2016 graduating class, which will serve as a model for the state if this legislation is enacted.

“The Rhode Island public, as well as leaders in business, government, and education have called for programs that develop bilingualism and biliteracy for all learners for social, academic and economic purposes. The Rhode Island Seal of Biliteracy allows us to officially recognize the wealth of linguistic skills present in our community, including the many languages students bring from home and those learned in school, and to encourage further development of those languages in post-secondary pursuits,” said Erin Papa, director of the Rhode Island Roadmap to Language Excellence Initiative and past president of the Rhode Island Foreign Language Association.

The bill, which is cosponsored by Rep. Grace Diaz (D-Dist. 11, Providence), Rep. Shelby Maldonado (D-Dist. 56, Central Falls), Rep. Kathleen A. Fogarty (D-Dist. 35, South Kingstown) and Rep. Jean Philippe Barros (D-Dist. 59, Pawtucket), will now go to the Senate, where Sen. Juan M. Pichardo (D-Dist. 2, Providence) is sponsoring its Senate companion (2016-S 2735).